Brian Wilson: SNP’s 100% renewable energy talk just hot air

Despite press releases saying otherwise, we are nowhere near our renewables target, or knowing its cost

How will Scotland keep the lights on by 2020 and how much will it cost? I suggest these two questions as starting points for discussion of energy policy in 2012 in order to introduce some honesty and realism into a vital debate. The Scottish Government is excellent at issuing press releases. Invariably, they greet some supposed breakthrough in renewables capacity which, I strongly suspect, will make not a whit of difference when it comes to answering my big questions for 2020.

As a long-term advocate of a balanced energy policy, I reckon Scotland is in a reasonably good place. The figures for 2010 showed that we got 30 per cent from nuclear, 29 from coal, 24 from renewables and 17 from gas. For good measure, we exported 20 per cent surplus capacity. All of that is about to change. The Scottish Government is gleefully looking forward to Hunterston closing by 2016. There is uncertainty about Longannet following ScottishPower’s decision to pull the plug on plans for carbon capture and storage. Cockenzie is switching from coal to gas.

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Meanwhile, the Scottish Government has made renewable energy its flagship policy, second only to independence itself. By 2020, we are told, Scotland will generate the equivalent of 100 per cent of our electricity consumption from renewables. The press releases seek to disguise the implications of that aspiration.

Just before Christmas, the Scottish energy minister, Fergus Ewing, proclaimed the renewables target to be on track. It is no such thing. In 2010, renewables output actually fell. So Mr Ewing took comfort in a claim that “the first nine months of 2011” had produced 83 per cent of the renewables power generated in the “previous record year”. Researchers with a long attention span will need to wait until December to find out what this actually means, but it is likely to be around 27 per cent of the electricity that Scotland consumes.

Enter the cheer-leaders. Dan Barlow of the World Wildlife Fund enthused over Scotland having “almost tripled the amount of electricity it generates from renewable energy” over a decade. Actually, Scotland was getting 13 per cent from hydro a decade ago, thanks to the vision of politicians and engineers of the 1940s and 1950s. In the past decade, for all the hype and consumer subsidy, we managed only to equal that achievement.

But talk of “renewable energy” is itself misleading. Of far more interest, when contemplating the huge leap demanded by the Scottish Government’s targets, is how that generic term will be broken down among different technologies. Or is it largely a euphemism for “onshore wind”? On this question, the Scottish Government is uncharacteristically reticent. Answering questions from Neil Bibby MSP, Mr Ewing declared loftily that they do “not set targets for individual technologies as part of our renewable energy targets for 2020”. Well, isn’t it time they started to do so? Eight years is the mere flash of an energetic eye, so aren’t we now entitled to some broad guide to where this 100 per cent might come from?

Mr Ewing continued: “We do expect offshore renewables to play a major role in meeting that target and are making every effort to deliver the support and infrastructure which these technologies will need to develop and flourish.” Loosely translated, this means that Mr Ewing – like the rest of us – does not have a clue whether offshore renewables will deliver anything to the “100 per cent” target by 2020.

And this is where the Scottish Government’s press release industry becomes deliberately misleading by seeking to suggest that development of Scottish offshore renewables – wind, wave and tidal – is likely to make a significant contribution to meeting the 2020 target. There is absolutely no objective evidence to support this.

If one draws the territorial line far enough, Scotland could become the “Saudi Arabia of marine renewables”. But the vast majority of that resource is in deep and hostile waters, currently beyond the margins of both technology and economics. Even the task of taming the Pentland Firth, and depositing large numbers of huge industrial machines in it, is fraught with unresolved difficulties.

There is nothing shameful about saying so while continuing to support research and development. But unless the Scottish Government can start to break down its headline target into reasonable expectations for each sub-sector, then people are entitled to draw the conclusion that “renewable energy” actually equates to onshore windfarms on a scale not yet envisaged.

Next, there are transmission charges. Before Christmas, Ofgem produced its report proposing a reduction of charges for the Scottish mainland but leaving those for island and offshore generation at a prohibitive level. Unless this is sorted, then all the talk of marine – or indeed island-generated – renewables will be pretty irrelevant.

Until now, the Scottish Government presented this as a Scotland v England issue, which it never was. No mainland project was rendered uneconomic by transmission charges and they will now become even more profitable, intensifying pressure on potential windfarm locations. The real issue is still the huge gap between mainland and island/offshore charges. That must now be addressed in both Edinburgh and Whitehall.

Another difficulty the Nationalists cannot be allowed to brush aside in 2012 is the one about “who pays?”. As Mr Ewing acknowledged in another reply, subsidy to Scottish renewables generation comes from consumers “spread across the UK… since this is how the Renewables Obligation operates and will continue to do so”.

Will it really? By 2020, Scotland may be a separate state and the idea that English consumers would continue to fund “100 per cent Scottish renewables” out of residual goodwill is risible. The Nationalists should be adult enough to acknowledge a serious contradiction between their energy policy and their separatist objective in order to adjust one, other or both accordingly.

It seems to me madness to throw away our existing status as a net exporter of electricity, blessed with diversity of generation and security of supply. Those who advocate that transformation should be able to tell us where the alternative power will come from, how much it will cost and who is going to want it.

These seem reasonable questions when billions of pounds, unaffordable bills, whole industries and the jobs that go with them are being pitted against what is currently not so much a strategy as a noisy hypothesis.